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Crepe Murder Is The South’s Worst Gardening Crime

19 de februar de 2024

Steven King, Wes Craven, Jon Carpenter, and Alfred Hitchcock would all be hard pressed to surpass the horror stories being perpetrated in my neighborhood right now. Decapitated corpses, the hideous remains of once-beautiful crepe myrtles, populate our yards, testifying to unspeakable violence pursued simply for copycat pleasure. Yes, despite more than 20 years of pleas, remonstrances, instructions, and aggrieved condemnations from me, the crime continues: crepe murder.

I spied the latest victim on my morning walk today. Just days before, a lovely crepe myrtle stood perhaps 20 feet tall, proudly displaying handsome trunks cloaked in smooth, chestnut-brown bark and destined to wear a crown of summer flowers. It did not block windows. It did not scrape the roof. It did not impinge on the driveway. Nevertheless, the unspeakable happened. Call it The Alabama Chainsaw Massacre.

Do not imagine for a second that such tragedy is confined to my home state, however. If you live anywhere crepe myrtles grow, it’s likely transpiring near you as well. We see it so often that we become inured to the ugliness and shocked when a tree is permitted to grow as God intended. 

But you can break the cycle. Understanding the what and why of crepe murder, as well as how to atone for past crimes, can make you the shining example of proper pruning in your neighborhood. And hopefully all your neighbors will follow suit.

What Is Crepe Murder?

Any indiscriminate pruning of a crepe myrtle could be classified as crepe murder, but the worst offenders are those who shorten tall crepe myrtles by six feet, turning beautiful trunks into thick, ugly stubs. This atrocity is often perpetrated with a chainsaw with the offender making blunt cuts across all the trunks of the tree and cutting them to the same uniform height.

But even well-intentioned crepe owners using shears and loppers can be guilty of crepe murder. Repeated pruning to the same point creates gnarled, knobby «knuckles» on the ends of the trunks. In short order, a thicket of long, weak, whiplike branches sprouts from each knuckle. These whips are too weak to support the flowers and hang straight down like cooked spaghetti.

Why Do People Commit Crepe Murder

There are three common motives for crepe murder:

  1. Most do it because they planted a crepe myrtle variety that grew too big for the space it’s in. When the first mildew-resistant hybrids with Native American names («Natchez,» «Muskogee,» «Tuscarora,» etc.) were introduced by the U.S. National Arboretum in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, this became a real issue. Growers didn’t know how big these crepes would get because they hadn’t been out long enough. So they guessed—and almost always guessed wrong. Crepe myrtles said to grow 10 to 15 feet tall ended up growing 20 to 30 feet tall. This meant that many crepe myrtles grew too big for the spots they were in, and homeowners started chopping off their heads every spring. 
  2. Many say they do it because it makes the trees bloom more heavily. Yes, butchered trees indeed produce more flowers closer to eye-level than tall ones. But again, if you plant a variety that doesn’t grow tall, such as the Black Diamond series, the Petite Series, and the Magic Series, you’ll get eye-level flowers without any pruning, and you won’t risk your tree’s health.
  3. Lastly, crepe murder is a copycat crime. Many people engage in it because they see their neighbors doing it and think it’s the right thing to do. They couldn’t be more wrong.

How to Fix Crepe Murder

We know not all crepe murderers are evil people. Some don’t know any better. Others hired a landscape service to do «a little light trimming.» Thankfully, maimed myrtles can be restored to their former glory. Follow these steps: 

  1. As mentioned above, each cut trunk will send out a plethora of shoots from the ends of the cut. Leaving them all would create a Medusa-like mess. Remove all but three shoots from each one. Make sure they’re well-spaced and growing up and out. These will become the new trunks.
  2. For the next two years, remove any additional shoots that sprout from the cut ends. Also remove any side branches that grow from the saved shoots.
  3. By year three, your crepe myrtle will be well on the way to reclaiming its former glory. Brush up on proper pruning techniques to avoid committing the crime again.

How to Avoid Crepe Murder

If you haven’t yet planted a crepe myrtle tree, find out the mature height of a selection before planting it. These beautiful bloomers come in all sizes and an array of bloom colors so your options are endless. If you’re short on space, look for a dwarf or semi-dwarf selection. 

If you’re dealing with a too-big myrtle already. move it to where it has more room. These trees are easy to plant and respond well to transplanting.

Prune only to maintain natural form. Select four or five well-spaced main trunks—remove any others at ground level. Train these trunks to grow upward and outward from the base of the plant. As they grow taller, gradually remove all side branches up to four to five feet. This growth exposes the smooth, handsome bark. Early each spring, remove weak, spindly growth and all the branches growing in toward the center of the plant. Prune large branches back to a crotch. Never leave thick stubs.

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